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LESSON 11:  Indian Empire
India, a subcontinent in the south of Asia, is the location of one of the oldest civilizations known to mankind. Throughout its long history, India was invaded several times. Even though the Himalayan Mountains protect India from invasion in the north, many mountain passes, including one called the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush Mountains, made it easy for armies to reach India.

The Gupta Empire
Until about A.D. 320, many groups ruled India. A young leader named Chandra Gupta I established a new dynasty known as the Gupta dynasty. The Gupta’s Empire controlled much of the land around the Ganges River Valley. As the influence of the Guptas spread, more and more territory came under their control. Soon the empire included territory in the western part of India. Trade expanded as access to the ports on the east and west coasts of India came under the Gupta rule. There were many cultural contributions made during Gupta rule. The arts and the sciences flourished.

Contributions to Civilization
Gupta leadership led to great achievements in literature, art, mathematics, and science. Great temples with elaborate carvings and murals were built. Indian mathematicians originated the concept of zero and had a symbol for infinity. They also developed the base 10 decimal system, which we still use today. These numerals are now called Arabic numerals because the Gupta concept of numerals was carried to the Middle East and Europe by the Arabs.

By Gupta times, Indian doctors had pioneered the use of herbs and other remedies to treat illness. In India’s free hospitals, these doctors were the first to give injections and vaccinate people against smallpox, 1,000 years before this practice was used in Europe. Surgeons sterilized their cutting tools, set broken bones, and repaired injured ears and noses using plastic surgery techniques.

Many writers collected and recorded fables and folktales in the Sanskrit language. These Indian fables were carried west to Persia, Egypt, and Greece. Many of these tales traveled to Arabia and became part of the Arabian Nights. The greatest Gupta poet and playwright was Kalidasa. His most famous play, Shakuantala, was about a king who marries an orphan.  India became the center of learning, and much of its culture spread throughout eastern Asia. The Guptas gave India a long period of peace and prosperity. This is one of the reasons why the Gupta period is often called India’s Golden Age.

Two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, played a part in Indian culture. Unlike most other major religions, Hinduism had no single founder and no single sacred text. Hinduism is a collection of religious beliefs that developed over thousands of years.

Hindus worship many gods. Each god represents a form of the universal soul known as Brahman. In order to be one with the universal soul, followers of Hinduism must purify their souls by performing religious duties and living righteously. Soul purification requires many lifetimes. Each person’s soul experiences rebirths or reincarnations.

In each lifetime, a person can come closer to achieving union with the universal soul by obeying the law of karma. Karma includes all the events of a person’s life that affect his or her fate in the next life. People who live righteously earn good karma and are rewarded by reincarnation into a higher caste or class in their next life. Those who do evil deeds acquire bad karma and are reborn into a lower caste or class, or lower life form.

When an individual’s soul finally achieves oneness with the universal soul, he or she is released from the cycle of rebirth. Hindu teachings are recorded in sacred texts known as the Vedas and Upanishads. These sacred books have stories of heroic tales and moral lessons. Throughout India’s history, these teachings have influenced the way of life of its people.

Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism, was born to a high-ranking family in northeast India about 566 B.C. He became known as the Buddha, or the Enlightened One. The Buddha taught that the way to happiness was to avoid attachment to the material pleasures of life. Suffering was caused by desire. A person could eliminate desire by following the Eightfold Path of righteous living: right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation. By living righteously, a follower of the Buddha could escape the endless cycle of reincarnation. When people rid themselves of their attachment to worldly pleasures, their souls can enter a spiritual state of peace known as nirvana. By 300 B.C., the Buddha’s teachings spread throughout India and many other parts of Asia.

Muslim Invasion of India
Around A.D. 550, the power of the Gupta family finally ended. Nomadic invaders from central Asia known as the White Huns overthrew the empire. In A.D. 606, at the age of 16, Harsha, a distant relative of the Gupta kings, succeeded in rebuilding much of the Gupta Empire during his 41 years of power. However, he left no heirs and the empire fell apart after his death in A.D. 647.   India was again divided into many independent warring kingdoms.

By the 8th century, the Muslims extended their power and spread Islam, their religion, into southern Asia. For more than 1,000 years, Muslim invaders crossed through India’s northwest mountain passes and extended their control as far south as the Deccan plateau. The Muslim conquest of India influenced both India’s political and cultural development. The Turkish Muslim conquest of northern India led to the destruction of many Buddhist and Hindu temples and monasteries.

During these invasions, many Hindus and Buddhists were killed, and cities were looted. Islamic leaders drove the Buddhists from India but not the Hindus. This is why Buddhism started in India but it mainly exists in the rest of Asia. Under Muslim rule, many Indians converted to the Islamic religion.

Hindu and Muslim Differences
Hinduism, an ancient religion, had many sacred books and was polytheistic, with many gods and goddesses. Islam, a newer religion, had a single sacred book called the Quran or the Koran. The followers of Islam were monotheistic, believers in one God like Judaism and Christianity. The statues and carvings of gods and goddesses in Hindu temples were offensive to Muslims who worshipped only one God. While Hindus celebrated religious festivals with music and dance, Muslims condemned this practice. Hindus accepted differences in caste status; Muslims taught the equality of all believers before God and had no religious hierarchy. Over a long period of time, there was a cultural blending or merging of both Hindu and Muslim customs. A new language, Urdu, resulted from the blending of Persian, Arabic, and Hindu.

Delhi Sultans
The Delhi Sultans ruled India from 1206-1526. An all-powerful Muslim ruler or sultan named Aibak conquered India’s entire northern plain. He established his capital at the city of Delhi. Many other cities were built as later sultans extended Islamic power to the south. Trade between India and the rest of the Islamic world flourished.

New ideas were brought to and from India. Muslim rulers condemned Hinduism as idol worship. They also persecuted Hindus and tried to encourage people to convert to the Islamic faith. However, Hinduism survived as the religion of the majority in India. By the 14th century, the Delhi Sultanate became weak. It was soon divided into smaller independent states, which were ruled by Muslim rulers. In 1398, a Mongol warrior named Tamerlane attacked and destroyed Delhi. He slaughtered thousands of people, both Hindus and Muslims. Mongol invasions and rivalries among its leaders weakened the Delhi Sultan’s empire and led to its decline after 320 years.

The Mughal Empire
By 1526 Mongol invaders led by Babur marched through the mountain passes of northern India and the city of Delhi. Babur founded the Mughal dynasty (Mughal is the Persian word for Mongol), which ruled from 1526-1857.   Babur was a Muslim and a descendent of the famous Mongol warriors Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane. Under the leadership of the early Mughal rulers, both Hindu and Muslim tradition blended together and eventually became the Mughal culture. 

Akbar the Great, the grandson of Babur, conquered additional territory in India. The area he conquered stretched from the Himalayas to the Deccan plateau. Although a Muslim, Akbar encouraged religious harmony through tolerance of the many faiths in India, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians. He won support through his policy of tolerance. Many converted to Islam, but India maintained its Hindu traditions, and the majority of its people practiced the Hindu religion.

Akbar was as skilled a negotiator as he was a military leader. He was able to make alliances with the many diverse people within his empire. He and his heirs strengthened their empire in many ways. He made codes of law that applied equally to all of his people. He also ended the practice of taxing non-Muslims and appointed many Hindus to high government positions. The Mughals encouraged learning, especially in the arts, architecture and literature.

The Mughal Empire lasted until the mid-1800s.  It began to decline when frequent wars, heavy taxes, and tension between Muslims and Hindus increased. As the Mughal Empire weakened, European nations gained control of India.

Mughal Influence
The Mughals built mosques (Muslim houses of worship), palaces, and tombs. The Taj Mahal is a magnificent marble building built by a Mughal emperor as his wife’s tomb. The tomb has white marble spires and domes etched with beautiful patterns decorated with gold, silver, and precious jewels. It stands as perhaps the greatest monument of the Mughal Empire. Many Mughal rulers encouraged the combining of Hindu and Muslim traditions in literature and art. Hindu works of literature such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were translated into the Mughal language. Indian and Persian influences are demonstrated in much Mughal art. Painting included portraits, nature scenes, and depictions from religious and literary works.

Review Lesson 11

1. What is the Gupta period in India called?  Explain why.

2. What are four contributions to civilization made by the Guptas?

3. How did relations between Hindus and Muslims change over time?

4. What evidence do we have of cultural diffusion in India?

5. List two beliefs of the Hindu religion.